Domestic violence is one of the most prolific crimes of our time, striking in every state, across class boundaries, and accounting for more than 15% of total crime nationwide. Due to the unique nature of domestic violence, where the victim and abuser actually live together, the normal legal machinery used to prosecute abusers is ill-equipped to handle it. Restraining orders are often toothless against people who live with you, and getting an injunction (which can be costly) to prevent abuse is complicated and unlikely to work very well. On the criminal side, many women are hesitant to prosecute their husbands, and may not file charges or show up in court.
In order to tackle this problem, the courts in every state have created special orders of protection specifically designed for domestic violence situations. These are made to be easy (and often free) to obtain, to work quickly, and to allow for the difficult circumstances that go hand in hand with domestic violence.
How Do You Get Domestic Violence Protection Orders?
Generally, any member of a "family" or "household" may petition for a protective order, but obviously those terms are rather vague. Direct familial relationships, by blood or by marriage, are always in the protected class (this includes in-laws stemming from a marriage). As for households, the definitions vary from state to state. Sometimes it includes people in romantic or sexual relationships, or roommates, and sometimes it does not. Cohabitation is often a requirement for these types of orders, however. Same-sex couples are specifically forbidden from these orders in seven states, but allowed in most others.
The process itself is a rather simple affair. If you don't have your own lawyer, some states will provide a domestic violence advocate to help you with the paper work, or someone at the district attorney's office may assist you through the legal process. Many of the forms are simple, fill-in-the-blank type forms, designed for people to complete easily. The filing fees to submit the forms are also commonly waived for low-income people, and sometimes states charge no fees at all.
What Does the Order Actually Do?
The key distinction between domestic violence protection orders and other common court orders is the broad powers they grant the judge to tailor to your specific case. At their least, they will certainly order the abuser to cease his abuse, turn in all firearms (even legally owned) to the state or sell them, and usually order him away from the home or place of employment of the victim. But they can also do much more than this.
A DV protection order can automatically evict people from shared homes, even if they own the house in name, and can limit the abusive person's access to all jointly owned property and financial assets. It can also force the abuser to pay for the support of the victim (and/or children) while the order is in effect, or it can freeze his assets completely and automatically transfer the money from him. In addition to all of this, it can (and often will) force the abuser to pay reparations, for injuries both physical (medical and dental expenses) AND psychological (counseling). They can also require the abuser to pay all attorney's fees associated with this litigation.
But perhaps the most powerful feature of the order is that it allows quick police response should the abuser break the order. After a domestic violence protection order is issued, the police can, without any probable cause or warrant, arrest the abuser as soon as he appears in violation of the order (such as returning to his house).
Do I Need an Attorney?
If you are the victim of domestic violence, the first thing you need to do is to get to the safety of a family member's home or a shelter. After that, it would be wise to consult a family lawyer to see what kind of protections your state provides, and what course you should pursue in protecting yourself and your family.